South Korea plans to provide mental health counseling to 1 million people by 2027

South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol (centre) hosted a meeting on mental health policy at the Blue House in central Seoul on Tuesday, attended by about 100 people including officials and experts. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

As part of a plan to reform mental health policies, the South Korean government announced on Tuesday that it will provide psychological counseling to 80,000 people next year, including those with suicidal thoughts.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare has unveiled its Mental Health Innovation Plan, which revamps the government’s current policy by detailing holistic preventive and restorative measures to address mental health issues.

For nearly 20 years, South Korea has been ranked as having the highest suicide rate among OECD countries.

According to the plan, it is expected that a total of 1 million people will be able to receive government-funded psychological counseling by 2027, including the most direct medium- and high-risk groups next year. These groups include those who have experienced suicide in their family, or those who are considered to require intervention from health facilities or welfare centers as part of early treatment and prevention efforts.

The government will also increase national mental health examinations for adolescents aged 20 to 34 from once every 10 years to once every 2 years, laying the foundation for early intervention against signs of mental health risks such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The government says that through such policies, it aims to reduce the suicide rate by 50% within 10 years.

In 2022, South Korea’s suicide rate reached 25.2 per 100,000 people, far exceeding the average suicide rate of 10.6 among the 34 OECD member countries, and has ranked first since 2003.

According to the Ministry of Health, the number of people receiving treatment for mental illness increased from 2.89 million in 2015 to 4.11 million in 2021.

In particular, the number of people with depression in their 20s has doubled in four years, from 99,796 in 2018 to 194,322 last year.

The mental health policy vision was announced at a public-private meeting held at the Blue House State Guesthouse in central Seoul. The meeting was chaired by South Korean President Yoon Seok-yeol and attended by about 100 people including relevant ministers, parliamentarians and experts.

The plan takes into account growing concerns about worsening mental health as social circumstances change, such as increased isolation due to the Covid-19 pandemic and economic hardship.

The government aims to change previous mental health policy, which focused on the treatment and care of people with severe mental illness, which has been criticized as reactive, reactive and lacking support for prevention, early treatment, recovery and return to daily life.

“Compared with our high economic level, the suicide rate is the highest, the happiness index is at the bottom, and life satisfaction is extremely low,” Yin said. “Due to the rapid development of industry, the increase in single-person households, the collapse of families and communities, and excessive competition , mental health problems have become more serious, but there is arguably little investment from the state across the board, as individuals avoid disclosing problems and seeking treatment.”

Yin stressed that mental health problems should not be solved by individuals, but should be included in the important national agenda and solutions should be actively sought.

“In the era of low birth rates, we need to promote national growth by solving people’s mental health problems and improving personal abilities and quality of life,” Yin said. “The government will greatly improve the overall support system by reorganizing the entire support system from prevention to treatment and rehabilitation.” Changing the Paradigm in Mental Health Policy.”

He also called for the establishment of a psychological care system so that employees can easily receive professional counseling at work, school and in the community.

Yin stressed that now is the time for the country to take better care of people’s mental health.

The Plan will promote four key tasks: establishing a daily mental health care system; reorganizing the mental health emergency response and treatment system; providing innovative welfare services for rehabilitation; and raising public awareness.

These measures are expected to increase mental health service utilization from 12.1% in 2021 to 24% in 2030.

In addition, starting from July next year, mandatory suicide prevention education will be provided to 16 million people, including students, every year.

Such public campaigns to help spread awareness will be complemented by the introduction of integrated hotlines and social media consultations.

The suicide prevention hotline will be integrated with several other reporting and counseling services “109”.

The number of counselors on the hotline will also increase from the current 80 to 100 next year, and social counseling will also be provided for teenagers and those who prefer texting rather than calling.

It will also encourage regular check-ups through mental health self-diagnosis websites, which can be easily accessed through the messaging app KakaoTalk and the Naver portal.

The Ministry of Health said it will also reorganize the mental health care system to enable people with severe mental illness to receive continuous treatment and management.

The government will set up joint response centers for mental health experts and police in 17 provinces and cities across the country to enable 24-hour dispatch to emergency rescue locations.

The government plans to double the number of emergency beds for psychiatric patients across the country and allow for intensive case management when there is a risk of harm to themselves or others. It will also seek ways to reduce the cost of long-term patient care.

However, the government said it would continue to discuss the issue of whether judicial authorities have the power to hospitalize mentally ill patients who are at risk of harming themselves or others for public safety reasons.

Yoon said a Presidential Council on Mental Health Policy Innovation will also be established to oversee infrastructure and investment in such mental health care initiatives.

“By making bold investments in people’s mental health, we will create a society where mental health services are available to everyone, anytime, anywhere, and people with mental illness can receive appropriate treatment and live together,” Health Minister Cho Kyu-hong said.

Author: Sarah King [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]


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